The whisky business is an industry renowned for classy, innovative packaging. But in a competitive field, I’d suggest to you that the single malts produced by the Copenhagen Distillery might just edge out anyone else for the title of coolest bottle and box. Square bottle (and I mean geometrically speaking, not as in unhip), square box, a creatively austere ice-flow-white label, dipped wax closure and each one personally signed by the maker, these are pieces of Scandi design that you could sit and look at for hours. Perhaps even look at forever. Preserve it in all its minimalist beauty. Wouldn’t it be a defilement to break the wax seal, upset the symmetry by watching the contents work their way down the bottle?
Big mistake. For then you’d forego one of the great pleasures in life, tasting a liquor that is unique and special. It’s a bottle of whisky. No matter how beautiful, it is for drinking. If you want art buy half a sheep in formaldehyde. Or better still, buy another bottle of Copenhagen, put it on the shelf and look at it until the urge to drink it overcomes any aesthetic pleasure.
I tell you at some length about the packaging because its flair and style is an accurate reflection of the product itself. Scandinavia is home to a rich distilling heritage – how do you think their forebears reached all of the known world from Constantinople to Canada? So, it’s no surprise that the Copenhagen Distillery turned to malt whisky with a mix of thoroughness and verve. I spoke to Lasse Oznek who joined his old friend Henrik Brinks to take charge of the production processes shortly after the distillery opened in 2013.
‘Henrik and I were on a Whisky Club trip. We were in Islay and one evening we found ourselves, after hours, in the warehouse at Bruichladdich. There was an old boy going round the casks. “Come away over here, lads.” It wasn’t an invitation to turn down. He opened casks, let us nose and sample, we learned so much on that evening. At the last cask he said – ‘now try this one.’ Henrick and I sampled this amazing spirit. “Where do we buy it?” “Well,” said our new friend, “here’s the catch. This is my own personal cask. All of this is for me and me alone.” ‘So, we reacted to that as you might expect. Before we got back to Denmark, Henrik and I had resolved to start our own distillery. Within a year the business was established, and I joined shortly after.
Lasse’s background is in chemistry and biological science. He spent twenty years in the pharmaceutical industry, so his approach is the opposite of slap-dash-try-it-and-see-but-keep-your-fingers-crossed. He’s also steeped, if that’s not the wrong word, in whisky lore and knowledge.
‘I’ve done maybe five hundred blind tastings, visited I don’t know how many distilleries, and I’ll confess, provided you don’t alert the authorities, to cooking up my first moonshine at the age of sixteen. ‘I respect the process. And the basics are the same for everyone. But Henrik and I didn’t set out to replicate any existing malts. Our mission was to do something completely different. It’s not Speyside, it’s not Islay. It’s Copenhagen. We were prepared to re-think all the elements in the process – from milling to cask management. ‘The other crucial element? We were impatient! We didn’t want to wait fifteen or twenty years to try our whisky.’
And there was another vital principle in the process. ‘We started from the taste notes. The point where people usually end up. We set out what we wanted the product to taste like – the sort of notes and flavours and nose we were excited by. And then worked towards that. ‘We were scientific of course. We went to still manufacturers, told them the tastes we wanted to produce and asked if they could give us equipment to deliver that. We took the same approach to all of the stages. We didn’t want a roller mill or a hammer mill, but a plate mill. The barley is just cracked open, we leave it in bigger pieces for the mashing. ‘The barley itself is locally grown, an Odyssey variety from up in North Jutland. It has a journey of less than five hours to get to the distillery. It’s organic, which gives us some unique additions to the fermentation process. We have a double fermentation – in the first three to four days the yeast turns to alcohol and eskers. But in the next four days or so the lactic bacteria naturally present in the organic barley starts to work its magic, creating more compounds which generate more notes to taste later. We have to keep sourcing new organic barley as the yields drop and the ground has to be left fallow for a while. But that only brings new challenges and new tastes with new strains of barley.
Lasse is no less scientific and uncompromising when it comes to the barrels. ‘We use Hungarian Oak, Virgin oak casks. No bourbon, no sherry, no charring. The oak is the densest oak you can get. We prepare the casks thoroughly – no chemicals – water only. We have no chemicals anywhere in the plant- we do all our cleaning in the plant by steam. The casks are washed and washed again – otherwise the tannin would overpower the whisky. ‘We keep the casks around the production process, close to the mash tuns and the still. It’s the secret of our accelerated process. Three years is a long time in our distillery! ‘During the day, when were making whisky the temperature climbs to 30 degrees. At night when we shut down, it drops to 20 degrees. That ten-degree range means that it’s never quiet in the casks, there is lots going on chemically as the temperature goes up and down. And that’s what is constantly creating interesting tastes within the spirit. We even have to move the casks from the floor to the top of the stacks, constant rotation, to maintain continuity as there is a three-degree temperature difference between being on the floor and up near the ceiling.’
It’s a small production process. Lasse has graduated from initial 20 and 30 litre casks up the 250 litre hogsheads he uses now. But the production batches are small – no more than a couple of thousand at a time. The range focusses on three concepts. Lasse explains: ‘We call them concepts not categories. Raw, Refined and Rare. Raw is a small batch – five to six hundred bottles – but it is straight out of the cask. And remember we have no bourbon or sherry or burning to hide behind. It’s the taste of the still spirit working with the oak in the cask – nothing else. ‘Refined is the opposite of raw – we use a bespoke cask to season the whisky – it is single malt, but completely unique. And Rare is where we create very special short run whiskies – using specialist grains – spelt for example, or we mature in special casks – Negroni for instance. These are extra-short runs. Sometimes it’s between thirty and a hundred bottles.’
Copenhagen Distillery is more than a place to produce whisky. It’s a café, a bar and a venue for food tastings and music. The distillery is part of a food and drinks scene that includes the two best restaurants in the world – Noma and Geranium. Yes, there are many foodie centres in the world – but can anywhere else boast the best and the second-best restaurant? Copenhagen Distillery is a poised mix of precision science, an earthy commitment to the local and a burning passion for the craft and the product. Yes, there are very sharp technical skills on display, but it always comes back to taste.
‘We don’t make our whisky to any specific ABV. We blind taste throughout the process. When the taste is right, we stop. Whatever the ABV is at that point, is what goes on the bottle. We have a huge passion for our whisky, and we want to pass a bit of that passion on to our customers.’
In October 2021, Lasse and Henrik stormed the Whisky Show in London. Tough trade delegates and enthusiasts alike were wowed by the contents as much as the packaging. Copenhagen Distillery might be the coolest thing this side of Sarah Lund’s knitwear.